It’s snow time and that brings to mind some annual events for me. First up is the Carroll County Bird Club’s mid-winter bird count. It’s time for two old gray-haired ladies to hit the road and count all the birds we can find in our designated area.
This may sound a bit boring but it really isn’t. It helps that birding buddy Sharon and I have been doing this for many years. We are prepared for whatever nature will throw at us that day, which right now looks like a lot of cold but no snow (thank God!). If we find something unusual, we will actually get out of the car, but being the wimps that we are, we like toasty, warm, heated seats and cold wind not blowing through our hair!
Even being in the car, we bundle up like we’re headed for Antarctica instead of Hampstead. While Sharon drives, I keep count on a checklist of everything we see. All this activity takes energy, so we pack the essential snacks (mostly sugar spiking stuff like cookies and candy with the occasional healthy fruits and nuts). Sometimes it looks like a rolling grocery store in the front seats.
We’re loaded down with the usual tech stuff, too, like binoculars, cameras and field guides — both phone apps and believe it or not, real bird guides (yes, some of us still have those strange things called books). Depending on our schedules and the level of activity, we are sometimes gone all day or just for a few hours.
Though on this count we probably won’t see my favorite snow birds (more on that later), we always hope for some sightings like horned larks, cedar waxwings, pileated and red-headed woodpeckers, eagles, owls, hermit thrushes and fun waterfowl like hooded mergansers.
For the most part, Carroll County drivers are very respectful of our cautious slowdowns and stops on the roads to spot birds and we very much appreciate this. Hopefully, we can count on their continued kindness and patience again this year. Be on the lookout for us as we hit the local backroads and ponds looking for ordinary and extraordinary avian friends.
As winter’s deep cold settles in, it will be waterfowl migration show time at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Stevens, Pennsylvania (Lancaster County). It takes about half the time to get there as it would going to Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern shore. It is an easy and well worth it day trip. By February, thousands of snow geese, trumpeter swans and other waterfowl cover the lake like an undulating blanket. Beating wings and constant calls sound like a raucous symphony. When eagles fly by looking for a meal, the blanket morphs into an explosion of fireworks piercing the sky as the geese literally fly for their lives to get away from them. It is a spectacle that never gets old.
I missed my trip there last year so I am very much looking forward to refreshing myself with this incredible migration event. Migration updates are posted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission on line to help you plan the best days to go. This year the visitor center is closed for renovations so if you go make alternative plans for a rest stop. Some of the ponds will be drawn down, too, to make way for foraging habitat for the waterfowl. While I patiently wait for just the right day, I am playing back videos of previous trips I made to get my fix of the sights and sounds to come.
Lancaster County was also the location of my first and only sighting of a snowy owl. It is almost a year to date that I saw the owl in a field of corn stubble on a country road in the county. There’s no such luck this year having one so close by, but many people have been thrilled by the presence of one in our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., as well as one on the Eastern shore in Cambridge.
The Washington, D.C. owl has been named Duchess. She showed up in December and after visiting various places, made Union Station a favorite perch site. She has a lot of people’s attention and admiration (a rare thing in D.C.) and is even contributing to local pest control efforts. She is feasting on the plentiful rat population at no cost to taxpayers (an even rarer feat these days). She’s drawn quite a fan club and rightly so. In the midst of another dark COVID winter, she is a rising star of hope and perseverance.
I don’t know if I will get to see her, but I know the feeling of majesty and power that she evokes. It is a mystical experience to be in the presence of such a rare creature. I hope her journey back home to the Arctic is a safe one.
Even in the midst of winter, there’s so much wildlife to see. Never underestimate the power of nature to get us through the cold, the snow, the wind and everything else that gets thrown at us this time of year. With spectacular sights like snowy owls and the joyful, boisterous noise of snow geese, it’s time to get out there and experience it for yourself.